Editor's Note: This post was originally published in 2012. It has been updated with new information based on further testing.
While I stand firmly behind my statement that skinless, boneless chicken breasts are one of the most difficult meats to grill well, pork chops are not far behind. Suffering from some of the same problems as chicken breasts—minimal fat, often too thin, lacking a strong flavor—pork chops can confound the griller. Luckily, the path to killer chops is not difficult, and the results have the power to change your perception of what makes a great grilled pork chop.
The Right Chops
Cut selection is key to pork chop success on the grill, and, while there are many cuts to choose from, they're not all well suited for flames. Running along the loin, the frontmost cuts are the blade chops, whose large amount of intramuscular fat will not fully render during the quick cook on the grill, leaving the chops chewy and tough.
Then come the rib chops, composed largely of pork loin, which has enough fat to allow it to stand up to the heat well, along with a nice degree of flavor. From within the rib chops, try to get center-cut, which will have the largest piece of loin. Finally, you come to the loin chops, where the balance between loin and tenderloin can be more evenly weighted. And, since the tenderloin is prone to cooking faster than the loin, which in turn dries it out, it's not the best choice for the high heat of the grill.
The cut is only half the battle, though; size is just as important. As we learned from chicken, thin pieces of meat can go from great to overdone in a flash on the grill. While thinness is an inevitability with chicken breasts, it's something we have a say in with pork chops. Chops about one and a half inches thick seem to be the perfect size, allowing some insurance in perfect cooking by letting us take a two-zone, more controlled approach to grilling later.
You can probably pick up any of these pork chop cuts in the grocery store, but you'll most likely need to visit your friendly neighborhood butcher to get the nice thick slabs you really need.
With a thick-cut rib chop, we have the perfect pork chop for the grill. But that doesn't mean it won't benefit from a brine, which dissolves muscle proteins, helping the meat retain more juice as it cooks. The thing with brining, though, is there are two primary ways to do it: wet and dry. A wet brine involves dissolving salt (and sometimes sugar) in water or other liquid, then soaking the meat in it. A dry brine is as simple as sprinkling salt all over the meat and letting it rest long enough for the salt to penetrate the meat and work its magic. It's best to dry-brine meat uncovered, on a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet, to allow for good air circulation all around the meat.
When it comes to chops, a dry brine is your best bet. It delivers all the moisture-retaining powers you want from a brine, plus an air-dried exterior that browns far better and more quickly on the grill. A wet brine leaves the chop too plumped with water, which means poor browning.
Once the meat has been brined—which you can do for as little as an hour or up to a full day—it's ready to be cooked.
A Double Dose of Grilling
The grill can be a thin-cut pork chop's worst enemy, but a thick-cut chop's best friend. The unique ability to easily sear and roast on a grill is the magic you need for fantastic chops. To accomplish this, start with a two-zone indirect fire—in which all the coals are piled on one side of the charcoal grate, creating hot and cool zones. The chops can then be safely seared over high heat, where they'll quickly develop a beautifully brown crust. Just be careful of flare-ups—caused by rendering fat dripping on the coals and igniting—which can be mitigated by temporarily moving the chops to the cool side of the grill, until the flare-up has ceased.
Once the chops are well seared, they still won't be cooked through, thanks to their large size. To finish up the cook, move them to the cool side of the grill, bone side facing the flame, and cover them. This indirect heat is gentler on the meat and allows for easier monitoring of the internal temperature—you can stick a probe thermometer in the thickest part of the chop and watch the temperature rise without even opening the lid. That temperature you're looking for is 135°F (57°C), which is just at the high end of medium-rare. This allows the final chop to come to a rosy and juicy medium 145°F (63°C) during the mandatory 10-minute rest off the grill.
Unlike with chicken, where even hard work can result in a somewhat flavorless end product, a brined, well-seasoned, and properly grilled pork chop can be truly fantastic on its own—the meat is incredibly moist, the crust full of flavor. Still, it doesn't hurt to add a little something extra.
One of my favorite things is to use a complex barbecue spice rub in place of pepper alone as the seasoning. These chili-rubbed chops deliver on this method very well. Another option is topping with a finishing sauce, like a corn relish or peach and ginger sauce. Finally, the thickness of the chops makes them a great choice for stuffing.
Versatile and delicious, pork chops are just crying out for the grill, and, with your new chop know-how, you should be able to churn out perfect pork, time and time again.